Everyone has a story: The grocery bagger

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
With wild brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and oval glasses accentuating his eyes, Paul Blais easily blends into his surroundings as people rush through the lines at the Langley Air Force Base Commissary - their minds lost in fervor of the day.

He quietly and calmly bags their groceries as he limps from register to register, working for the tips people hurriedly leave him.

It is hard to imagine that on June 24, 1996, this unassuming man was a 26-year-old senior airman, celebrating his birthday inside a laundry room in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

"It was a squadron tradition to have your birthday off," the former airborne communications systems operator said, his speech slow and strained by a heavy slur. "I stayed in the dorm and did laundry."

As Paul folded his clothes, his thoughts drifted to Greenland. He and his crewmates, who specialized in combat search and rescue, had spent April enjoying its unexpectedly warm weather. On the flight to Dhahran, Paul said there had been some rather nice conversations between him and his friend, Airman 1st Class Justin Wood, about "snow bunnies."

"Justin was always friendly and quick-witted," Paul said. "He could turn any situation into a smile."

The two became fast friends after Wood replaced Paul as the youngest member of their aircrew, talking about the things most 20-somethings talk about while making the most of their deployment. Everyone on the crew was close.

"They were my second family," Paul said, his cheerful voice suddenly turning somber.

"I am the only survivor of my second family."

It all happened the day after Paul's birthday. He and his crew were scheduled to fly a routine mission to Aviano, Italy - taking 50 Airmen home to their families. The pre-flight check showed the plane was in perfect condition, with the exception of an engine due for inspection. The crew agreed to ground the plane until the following morning.

"I went to sleep at 9:30 p.m.," Paul said. "At 10:05 I woke up, needing to use the bathroom."

Outside the Khobar Towers, where Paul lived, Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Mughassil, head of the Hizballah Al-Hijaz's military wing,, a terrorist group operating inside Saudi Arabia, turned the ignition key to a olive drab fuel tanker truck he and his accomplices had converted into a bomb. Al-Mughassil drove the truck into a parking lot and backed it up to a fence in front of the towers. He and his passenger, Ali Saed Bin Ali El-Hoorie, casually stepped out of the tanker, entered a white Chevrolet Caprice and drove away into the night, never to be seen again.

From the rooftop of the eight-story dorm, Staff Sgt. Alfredo Guerrero was checking a security post when he saw the tanker follow the Caprice through the parking lot. After the truck backed against the fence, Guerrero saw two men in white robes with red and white checkered headdresses exit the tanker and enter the car. As it sped away, Guerrero said his heart skipped a beat.

"At that point I knew something pretty big was about to happen," Guerrero said in a 2006 interview.

He immediately radioed the control center and started an evacuation of the building. Racing down the steps, he pounded on doors and shouted through the hallway. In seconds, the entire eighth, and half of the seventh floors, were emptied.

On the third floor, Paul was in the bathroom at 10:09 p.m., when an explosion equal to the force of nearly 30,000 pounds of dynamite tore through the Khobar Towers , leaving a crater 85-feet wide and 35-feet deep.

"If I had been in my room, asleep in my bed, I wouldn't have survived," Paul said. "Being in the bathroom put an extra wall between me and the explosion. Ten feet saved my life."

The floor beneath Paul gave way and he plummeted three stories, entering a coma as soon as he hit the ground. As Paul lay unconscious, the five stories above him buried him alive and left him bleeding profusely from the head. For two-and-a-half hours, the blood flowed from Paul's head, inching him closer to death.

Wood, who lived on the sixth floor, and the rest of Paul's crew died during the terrorist attack.

More than a month later, then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen issued a statement that forever changed the way the military viewed antiterrorism - specifically citing Guerrero's actions.

"This sergeant's good judgment and prompt action unquestionably saved lives the night of the bombing," Cohen said. "But one individual's exemplary performance cannot take the place of functional alarm systems and well-conceived evacuation plans and procedures."

Those inadequacies paved the way for the military's current view of antiterrorism measures - measures implemented too late to save the 19 Airmen killed, and hundreds more wounded by the attack; including one Airman 1st Class Christopher Lester, who lay comatose in a hospital in Germany.

Lester was a 19-year-old young man from Pineville, W.V., who was engaged to be married and serving in the U.S. Air Force as an electrical technician. Dhahran was his first overseas deployment. He was only in the country four days when the towers were attacked. Sadly, Lester was killed in the explosion. The Airman lying in the hospital bed was actually Paul, who had miraculously survived the ordeal.

"When I went to the bathroom, I forgot to take my dog tags with me," Paul said. "They misidentified me as Airman Lester."

In a news release, the Department of Defense clarified that members of Lester's unit had incorrectly identified Blais as the fallen Airman. For Lester's family, the news that their son had not survived the attack was unbearable.

"They took it as well as you would think," Paul said. "For one week they thought their son had survived."

Paul's mother, Maria Taylor, had been preparing for the worst ever since she was told Paul was missing and presumed killed in the explosion. When Paul was properly identified, Taylor was relieved beyond words.

"I waited a long time for the answer and finally [the officials] call us today and tell me my son is alive and is 100 percent my son," she said in an interview, June 29, 1996. "It's a very, very, very happy day of my life."

Although still in a coma, Paul was well enough to be transported to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His condition steadily improved, and on Aug. 3, 1997, Paul opened his eyes for the first time since his world collapsed around him. His first thoughts were of the Air Force and the mission he had sworn to complete.

"I wanted to get up and return to work," he said. "I wanted to do my job, not be a pin cushion."

There was only one problem - the attack had left Paul with severe physical injuries.

"I was in essence a newborn child," Paul said. "I still had the mental capacity of a 26-year-old, but I couldn't eat, drink, walk or talk. I could think it, but I couldn't do it."

Frustrated, Paul became obsessed with thoughts of escaping the hospital and returning to his aircrew, his mind refusing to accept that they had all died in the attack.

"I was not going to stay there and be stuck full of needles," he said. "Every night, I tried to escape. It didn't work. Two steps out of the bed and I would fall flat on my face. So I did what I was trained to do in survival school - I low-crawled."

Unfortunately, the nurse's station was adjacent to the elevator. Every time Paul got close to "freedom" a nurse would see him and carry him back to bed, chiding him as a "bad Airman." By the end of the second week, Paul's escape attempts had become so frequent his doctor began restraining him to the bed.

"My doctor didn't realize I had been through escape and evasion training," Paul said. "Those restraints gave the nurses an extra five or 10 minutes of slack time."

During Paul's recovery and repeated escape attempts, he was visited by the then-Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Ronald Fogleman. The general, who regarded the Khobar Towers bombing as "a wanton act of terrorism," awarded Paul a Purple Heart and medically retired him from active-duty service.

According to Paul, his doctor hoped the retirement would curb the escape attempts. By the end of the third week, a restraining cage had been built around Paul's bed to keep him from breaking free.

"I could not get out of that cage to save my life," Paul said with a chuckle. "I was in there for two weeks, but had I been in there a third, I would have gotten out of that cage."

As Paul physically recovered, stunning doctors who said he would never walk again, his thoughts began to dwell on his second family.

"I would try to remember the attack and all that would come to mind would be feelings of sorrow and guilt," he said. "I was the one to survive when they all died. I was the 'lucky one.'"

For years, Paul would struggle with survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he never truly got over those feelings, but rather learned to manage them better. Now, he tries to only remember the trips to Greenland and conversations about snow bunnies.

"I think of all the good times we had together," Paul said. "They, we, were all ready and willing to give our lives in defense of this country."

Now, Paul carries on the legacy of his fallen comrades by speaking to every class of senior airmen at Langley's Airman Leadership School. He stands in front of the future leaders with a solemn and powerful message.

"Freedom really is not free," he said. "My aircrew paid the price with their lives. I paid the price by having to survive and carry on with the knowledge of what they might have accomplished, had they lived."

Those memories stayed with Paul as he methodically placed groceries inside bags at the Langley Commissary - his face once again lost in the sea of tasks and distractions that follow people throughout their lives.